Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gift Ideas for Cyber Monday

Black Friday is past.  It seems to have begun this year on Thursday, Thanksgiving.  Merchants are happy because their sales receipts for Black Friday 2010 have outpaced those of Black Friday 2009.

Increased sales of push-up bras and other lingerie items tend to indicate a recovery in the retail sector, and, reports Reuters,

Total retail traffic will have risen 8.7 percent to 212 million shoppers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, compared with the same period in 2009, according to the survey from the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers will have spent $45 billion online and in stores over the four days, according to the survey, which includes estimated spending for Sunday. That compares with $41.2 billion in 2009.

Spending per person rose to $365.34 from $343.31 a year earlier, NRF said.
Tomorrow, November 29, is the much-vaunted Cyber Monday, when workers return to their jobs from the four-day weekend and begin using their office computers to shop on line (the honorable ones only during their lunch hours), ordering gifts for themselves and loved ones.

In between came a new shoppers' holiday called "Small Business Saturday."  The idea of that one is that consumers should visit local mom-and-pop shops and buy things there.  Even government officials got into the act.  Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, according to the AP, urged Old Dominion shoppers to patronize local small businesses.
The Republican governor says small business accounts for 98% of all businesses in Virginia, and for 75% of job growth.

He said doing your holiday shopping Saturday supports what he calls the "lifeblood of Virginia."
For my part, I visited four local businesses on Saturday:  Carter Mountain Orchard, The C'ville Market, McDonald's, and Walmart.

Lest you object that eating at McDonald's and buying things at Walmart betray the spirit of "Small Business Saturday," keep in mind that both McDonald's and Walmart started out as small businesses, respectively six and five decades ago.  And for those of you who found this blog post through the most pervasive global business of them all, Google, it's good to remember that the search engine giant did not exist even 15 years ago.

The best lessons about how small businesses succeed and grow, I suggest the South Park episodes "Something Wall-Mart This Way Comes" (Season 8) and "Gnomes" (Season 2).

That second episode contains a speech about free enterprise that would put Howard Roark to shame.  As Robert Arp writes in his book, South Park and Philosophy:
In the spirit of libertarianism, Kyle proclaims something rarely heard on television outside of a John Stossel report:  "Big corporations are good.  Because without big corporations we wouldn't have things like cars and computers and canned soup."  And Stan comes to the defense of the dreaded Harbucks:  "Even Harbucks started off as a small, little business.  But because it made such great coffee, and because they ran their business so well, they managed to grow until they became the corporate powerhouse it is today.  And that is why we should all let Harbucks stay."
In short, today's small business -- or even a yet-unrealized business concept -- may be tomorrow's behemoth, and that's good for consumers, for workers, for entrepreneurs, and for stockholders.

Looking forward to tomorrow, however, I would like to make a few suggestions for Cyber Monday purchases, whether something self-indulgent or something that will be a stocking-stuffer for St. Nicholas Day or gift under the tree on Christmas. (You may want to order expedited delivery if you're buying Chanukah presents. The Festival of Lights begins on December 1 this year.)

Let me begin by recommending the four best books that I have read in the past year.  Three are non-fiction, one is fiction.  I regret not having written full-length reviews of these books yet, but I may get around to it eventually.

By far my favorite book of 2010 has been Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  The title is self-explanatory but completely understates the rich lode of historical matter that Okrent has gathered between the book's covers.  I thought I knew the story of Prohibition, and I was wrong.  So many rich details had slipped my notice over the years, including the seminal work of Wayne B. Wheeler, the pre-eminent lobbyist for Prohibition, who basically invented grass-roots political organizing and direct-mail fundraising years before Marvin Liebman, Richard Viguerie, or MoveOn.org.

Neither did I know how the forces of Prohibition had undermined the Constitution by preventing for a full decade the mandated reapportionment following the 1920 census, because those favoring Prohibition knew that a Congress that more accurately represented cities, suburbs, and recent immigrants would be less inclined to support stiff enforcement of the Volstead Act and would be more inclined to move toward full repeal of the 18th Amendment.  As a result of the manipulation of Wheeler and others, the Congress elected in 1930 represented the same districts as their predecessors did in 1912, a clear violation of the Constitution.

What's more, Okrent did some digging and discovered no evidence for the widely-held belief that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a bootlegger.  Though Kennedy had imported liquor legally at just about the time that repeal seemed inevitable, there simply is no documentary proof that he had imported illegal liquor during Prohibition.  The rumor that the senior Kennedy had been a bootlegger, and had built his family's fortune on that, seems to have begun sometime in the 1950s and, as Okrent points out, if any evidence had existed prior to that date, Kennedy -- who had many enemies in business and politics -- would certainly have been called out on it.

Another book of history that I really enjoyed was Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market:  Ayn Rand and the American Right.  Burns, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a page-turner about the Objectivist philosopher and novelist's life.

That may be hard to believe, since the outlines of Rand's career are so well-known, given previous biographies and memoirs.  Somehow, however, Burns is able to keep the reader's attention.  As I read along through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I know what happens next, but I want to find out how it happens."

Burns was the first outside scholar to be given access to Rand's personal papers and library, and the result of her research is a highly readable yet informative chronicle, not only of Rand's life but of her influence on the American conservative and libertarian movements. 

Over the course of the past eleven or twelve months, I have had at least three opportunities to see Burns speak:  once at the Miller Center, once at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and once at a forum she assembled on the idea of "liberaltarianism," or the cooperation between libertarians and liberals in the public square.  On two occasions, I was able to interview her about Ayn Rand and about her book.

In the world of entertainment, it was my pleasure last month to see TV's Craig Ferguson perform his stand-up act at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville.

In anticipation of that show, I read Ferguson's own autobiography, American on Purpose:  The Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

As the title implies, the story culminates in Ferguson's decision to become an American citizen.  I was actually a bit disappointed that, for all the detail about his life and "adventures" earlier in the book, the section on the naturalization process was thin.  It certainly was not as complete as the reports Ferguson gave about it on The Late, Late Show on CBS while he was going through it.  (That included numerous offers of "honorary citizenship" from state governors, including a then-unknown-outside-Alaska Sarah Palin, whom Ferguson described at the time as something of a "sexy librarian.")

Still, Ferguson's chronicle of his life growing up in a lower-middle-class household near Glasgow in the 1960s and '70s, his love affair with the United States that began upon his first visit here at the age of 13, his early life as a drunk and drug addict, his first attempts at performing (which began with him as the drummer for a punk rock band, leading to a stand-up act as the character "Bing Hitler") that included encounters with other beginners like U2 and Alan Cumming, through his long-term engagement as a regular on The Drew Carey Show and finally, his becoming the best of the late-night talk show hosts (in my opinion, at least).

After Ferguson's performance at the Paramount in Charlottesville, I noticed his tour bus was still parked out back and, curious, I found a cadre of fans standing outside, waiting for the star to emerge.  Sure enough, only a few minutes later, he came out of the stage door and signed a few autographs and posed for a few photographs.  Luckily for me and Steven Latimer, who was with me that night, Craig let us pose with him in the very last shot taken that night.  Naturally, I posted it on Facebook as soon as we got home.  It appears here for the first time outside a social networking context.

As the picture was being snapped, I said to Craig, "You're the smartest host on late-night TV," to which he replied:  "That's like being a tall midget."  Maybe so, but I stand by my statement.

For what it's worth, I also purchased Ferguson's novel, Between the Bridge and the River, on that night at the Paramount.  I have not yet had a chance to read it.

I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless, I simply could not put it down.

It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much:  not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.

Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).

Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now.  His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.

The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band.  People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.

The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it.  For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection.  (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.)  So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.

Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me.  I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager.  It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.

I had planned to list a few novelty items here to round out this list of suggestions for Cyber Monday gifts, but these four books probably do the job.

In any event, Amazon.com has set up a whole page of links aimed at the Cyber Monday shopper.


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